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CD Review

Ernst Krenek

Symphonies, Volume 4

  • Symphony #4, Op. 113
  • Concerto Grosso #2, Op. 25*
* Volker Worlitzsch, violin
* Dimitar Penkov, viola
* Nikolai Schneide, cello
North German Radio Philharmonic Hannover/Alun Francis
CPO 777210-2
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Ernst Krenek (1900-1991) represents something of a paradox. With over 240 compositions to his credit, written during a relatively long composing career (essentially in the 72 years between 1917 and 1989) which spanned some of the most fundamental changes which music has ever undergone, he might be expected to be better known. Viennese born, of Czech origins, Krenek both wrote a study of Ockeghem and wrote atonally. He also wrote sparingly under the pseudonym of Thornton Winsloe. He studied with Franz Schreker – first privately in Vienna; then formally at the Berlin Conservatory from the early 1920s.

It's often said that, as Krenek moved apparently almost effortlessly with musical developments throughout the century, his œvre can be seen as parallel to the history of the music of the period. Slowly but definitely and deliberately modifying his esthetic in the direction of dodecaphony on contact with Berg and Webern, Krenek also fell foul of the Nazi regime for the subject matter of his opera Karl V; he moved permanently to the United States in 1937. There he also experimented with electronics, aleatoric music and indeed many of the (late) twentieth century's trends, as they emerged. On the other hand, he was his own person; and his works can also be seen as faithful to his considerable talents and originality. Yet only a couple of dozen CDs of Krenek's works are currently available that are not otherwise anthologized or that do not form part of collections.

The ever-enterprising cpo label is in the van in filling out some of the hollows – and filling them out very well – with its series of Krenek's symphonies: Numbers 1 and 5 are already available on CPO 999359-2, Number 2 on 999255-2, Number 3 on 999236-2; all feature the excellent North German Radio Philharmonic Hannover, though with a different conductor, Takao Ukigaya. On the CD under consideration here Alun Francis is responsible for performance of the fourth symphony which was written in 1947. Krenek wrote a total of eight: five numbered and the Symphony for winds and percussion, Op. 34 (1924-25); the Little Symphony Op. 58 (1928); Pallas Athene, Op. 137 (1954).

In many ways the Fourth Symphony illustrates the composer's independence from any one musical style – and ultimately from Krenek's teacher(s) and those who influenced him, like Busoni, too. It has a thread of mid-century anguish and uncertainty. But it could never be described as avant-garde or experimental. Yet it's of a pleasing unity, has direction and thrust which make it more than merely stimulating listening. Like all but those of the first and second symphonies, this one on cpo is the only recording. It's full of purpose, clarity and of transparent, open, yet very dedicated playing. What's more, the elements of beauty, persuasion and gentle originality are all blended into a very convincing whole. In other words, any "curiosity value" that Krenek may be in danger of attracting is dismissed by Francis and his forces in favor of first rate, sound, interpretative rigor.

The Symphony is a work with discernible and developing themes. Instrumentation is important, if conventional; as is variety. Conductor and players have blended the various components and developments in this performance in ways that would need to be done in a large scale orchestral work like those of Strauss, from which Krenek's work both draws influences and emphatically departs. Awareness of the Symphony's unities was as important in the account of the North German Radio Philharmonic as was bringing the unfamiliar to our attention as "raw material".

The same goes for the Concerto Grosso, which has the potential for being taken as a lighter piece with its conscious references to the eighteenth century prototypes. Schnittke's name might suggest itself for the same appeal to a parallel model. Yet Krenek's work in the genre (which dates from 1925) is more concerned with conveying contemporary emotions and distresses, almost, through what is otherwise a novel genre outside vocal works. The longest movement of the piece [tr.7] which begins andante and slows to an almost morose pace, then disintegrates into silence, for example, is given all the room to make just the impact which it needs on this recording – yet without losing impetus or becoming maudlin.

There are concertino parts for violin, viola and cello which Volker Worlitzsch, Dimitar Penkov and Nikolai Schneide execute with great verve and attention to the intricacies of a varied score. This is Krenek's second exploration of the form (the Concerto Grosso #1 was written in 1921). This suggests that the texture, the feel, almost, and the sensibilities of the Baroque interested Krenek. For all he wasn't concerned chiefly with exposing the technicalities of music in the ways that Schnittke was, Krenek was attracted to the appeal which the Baroque makes to the genteel and the formal. Yet he wanted to acknowledge a sophistication that doesn't conceal tensions; tensions not least between the various expressive qualities of instruments and instrument groups, indeed of the ways in which instruments make sounds. The status of these three soloists as contributors as much as virtuosi is clear and emerges clearly on this recording.

The acoustic on the CD from cpo is excellent, the background and description in the booklet well-written and to the point, though in a font size that will be too small for some to read easily. If you're new to Krenek or already collecting the composer's symphonies in this series, don't miss this. But the works stand in their own right as precise yet colorful statements of compositional excellence in the middle of the last century.

Copyright © 2011, Mark Sealey.